The roofs of the Chinese Palace buildings deserve special
attention. Originally the roofs were made mostly of wood, and to prevent the tiles from
sliding, wooden nails were used. However, without lightning rods, the palace roof would
easily catch fire. Therefore, some alchemists suggested that symbols of the fish-tail star
could be installed on the roof to prevent fire. Later, these symbols were replaced by
glazed tiles which were shaped like lucky animals, some of these imaginary.
On the roof of the Hall of Supreme Harmony, there is an immortal
riding a phoenix, followed by a dragon, a phoenix, a lion, a heavenly steed, a sea horse,
a suanni, a yayu, a xiezhi, a douniu and a hangshi. This was actually the fixed pattern
for the order of the animals. Significantly, the number of animals on the roof shows the
seniority of the building, which in turn referred to the seniority of the owner. The
greater the number, the higher the positon. As we know, the Hall of Supreme Harmony was the throne hall, so it had the most
animals on the roof. No other buildings in the country should have more animals on the
buildings in the Forbidden City are less important, therefore, the number of small animals
on the roof are reduced. The reduction would always start from the rear, first hangshi,
then douniu and so on. For example, the Palace of
Heavenly Purity where the emperor lived and dealt with state affairs, was just after the Hall of Supreme Harmony in importance,
therefore only hangshi was taken away. The Palace
of Earthly Tranquility, the residence of the Ming Empresses and the wedding room of
the Emperors, was even less important, therefore, hangshi, douniuand xiezhi were missing
from the roof.
The animals on the
roof were all auspicious characters in Chinese myths, used here to protect the emperors
and bring good luck to the palace and ensure the stability of the country. More
interestingly, the roofs, more specifically the glazed tiles, for most of the imperial
palaces are yellow, and yellow has long been used as an imperial colour. The ancient
Chinese believed that the world was made up of five elements, namely, metal, wood, water,
fire and earth, and yellow represents the earth, which for a long time was considered the
center of the universe by our ancestors.
However, the roofs
for the Imperial Library (Wen Yuan Ge), east of the Gate of Supreme Harmony, where the
famous 36,000 volume Si Ku Quan Shu was kept are black glazed tiles. Black also has
something to do with the theory of five elements, representing water, and it thought to be
able to prevent fire from destroying the library.
The South Three
Abodes (Nan San Suo) were the residences for the Qing princes, located near the Imperial
Kitchen and Tea House. The roofs are green, strictly following the rule for the living
quarters of the princes.
Color, like the
animals on the roofs of the imperial palace, also indicated the social status of the